Future of the Environment

The steel town that’s leading a sustainable revolution

Pittsburgh skyline.

Image: Eilis Garvey/Unsplash

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Pittsburgh once produced half of America’s steel. But the country’s steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s, because of foreign competition and shrinking demand.

In just two years, unemployment increased from 88,500 to more than 212,400. By 1990, Pittsburgh had lost more than a third of its population.

The city has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, reinventing itself as an innovative tech hub, with a strong focus on digital technology. It’s home to the National Robotics Engineering Center and the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute - while several tech firms are using the city as a testbed for self-driving vehicles.

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Pittsburgh was highlighted as a success story in the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness of Cities report in 2014 - recognized for its ability to create and attract new businesses and the example it has set for other cities once reliant on heavy industry.

A bridge in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a high-tech, low-carbon city. Image: Bruce Emmerling

Growing sustainably

Pittsburgh’s mayor, William Peduto, is an advocate for sustainable growth. In 2017, he issued an executive order committing Pittsburgh to the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement, after President Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the accord.

Peduto’s order means that the city will continue to work towards carbon neutrality - by reducing emissions, electrifying transport, and increasing the use of renewable energy sources.

William Peduto
Image: World Economic Forum

Pittsburgh has pledged to use 100% renewable energy by 2035. There are already plans to turn a former steel mill into one of the biggest solar generation sites in the country.

Global trend

Former industrial cities elsewhere in the world are undergoing similar facelifts. Glasgow, Scotland - once a major shipbuilding centre - has become a leader in the renewable energy sector and home to a new global research and development hub for offshore wind.

Glasgow City Council is now investing more than $500 million in urban regeneration projects, from new cycle lanes to revitalized commercial sites.

In Pittsburgh, Mayor Peduto has signed the city up to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals - a set of targets designed to address global challenges around poverty, inequality, and the environment by 2030.


Building resilience

The 'One PGH' strategy introduced by the mayor is designed to help make Pittsburgh more resilient by developing initiatives such as a climate action plan, a roadmap for inclusive innovation, and preparedness for events such as extreme weather or economic downturn.

In its Uptown neighbourhood, the city has developed an EcoInnovation District to look at the ways that redevelopment can improve the environment, support the needs of existing residents and expand entrepreneurship and job growth.

“There are a few things governments can do to create a more sustainable world,” Peduto says.

“The first thing is to empower those that are already doing it. The second is making sure that sustainability is a part of your mission, no matter what you're doing.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Future of the EnvironmentSustainable DevelopmentClimate ChangeElectricitySocial InnovationCities and UrbanizationFuture of Work
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